The editors have been kind enough to give me space to respond to Michael Lind’s reply to my article on the us Constitution in nlr 232.footnote1

In my article and in my book, The Frozen Republic, footnote2 I tried to show how America’s sacred constitution has locked the United States into a school of eighteenth-century Anglo-American thought that is increasingly at odds with the needs of modern society. The result, to quote the cover of nlr 232, is a ‘deadlocked democracy’, a self-contained, self-referential political microcosm that is inured to change and outside influences. I do not think that I could have come up with a better example of my thesis than Lind’s article.

Michael Lind is an American nationalist. This is a bit unusual in a country in which nationalism has always been ideologically weak—which is one reason why fascism, as opposed to nativist currents such as the Ku Klux Klan, made such little headway in the us in the 1920s and 1930s. Instead, most American political analysts—in fact, most Americans—are strict constitutionalists, meaning that they see the constitution as having given rise to the American nation rather than the other way around. Lind disagrees. The nation, he clearly believes, pre-dated the constitution and, assuming it survives America’s increasingly obsolete and dysfunctional form of government, will post-date it as well. This makes Lind somewhat more open to the idea of constitutional change than the average bourgeois pundit—but only to a degree. While he believes that the constitution should change with the nation, he also believes that, just as some things about the nation will never change, or at least will change very slowly, some things about the constitution should also remain unchanged. Hence his assertion: ‘The American presidential system was, and is, no more capable of evolving into a parliamentary system than a hippopotamus is capable of metamorphosing into a peacock or a turtle.’footnote3 Change in the us is subject to certain internal dynamics unlike those of any other nation. Rather than blindly copying others, the us should remain true to its own inner essence.

This is not to say that the us system should shut itself off from all ideas from abroad; Lind is hardly as close-minded as that. For example, he is a qualified fan of proportional representation—‘a reform’, he notes, ‘that was actually proposed by one Reconstruction Republican congressman’, as if that somehow improved its standing.footnote4 But, while individual reforms are permissible, Lind draws the line at importing entire ideologies. Citing Marx and Trotsky, as I did in nlr 232, merely confirms one’s allegiance to ‘the tradition of the European radical Left’ and hence one’s ‘divergence from the mainstream American Centre-Left’.footnote5 If one wants to have an impact on American politics, Lind maintains, one must be part of the mainstream, which means that one should cease quoting various European radicals and socialists and limit oneself to respectable American penseurs. Lind ends with a blast at the idea of democracy as something transcending national boundaries:

In the real world of governments and nations, constitution-making and constitution-revising are like designing, or remodelling, a building to take advantage of the characteristics of a given site, rather than like devising a blueprint for a generic structure with no location in mind and with no thought of the identity, needs and preferences of the likely occupants. Lazare’s critique of the American constitutional order, rich in particular insights, is undermined by the tendency toward abstraction and the impatience with compromise and imperfection which distinguishes left radicalism from liberal meliorism. He does not want to modify capitalism, but to scrap it; he does not want to amend the us Constitution, but to eliminate it altogether. Confronted with such temperamental radicalism, all that a temperamental liberal can say is: from the crooked timber of humanity, nothing straight can be made.footnote6

Although the quote is actually from Kant, it is taken out of context and used in a way that is closer to the classic Burkean critique of rationalist restructuring and reform.footnote7 Rationalism is unrealistic, this view holds, because it tries to impose abstract notions of what should be on a reality that is both richer and messier than anything ‘petulant, assuming, short-sighted coxcombs of philosophy’ can come up with. In its desire to make a clean sweep of things, it can only wind up doing violence to that which it purports to help. Real reform, by contrast, must come from within. It must develop organically out of the society of which it is a part.

Lind is what might be described as a constitutionalist with a small ‘c’, meaning that his loyalty is not to the document drafted in Philadelphia in 1787, but to the unwritten constitution behind it, a kind of national dna code that both reflects and reinforces all those things about America that are long-standing and unique, its temperament, geography, political traditions, racial make-up, and so forth. The written constitution is valid only to the degree it harmonizes with the unwritten one. When they diverge, as they are clearly now doing, it is the former’s job to adapt rather than the latter’s. Where the reigning ideology in the us is that the nation must serve the constitution, Lind holds that the written constitution must change so as to better serve the nation as it enters the twenty-first century.